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Presidents at War: Truman
by Blaine Taylor

Photo: “Captain Harry” Truman, commanding officer of Battery B, US Army. (HST Library and Museum, Independence, MO.)


‘We Respected Him Because He Earned It’” Said The Men Of Battery D’s Captain Harry S. Truman In The First World War—A Future American Commander-In-Chief

“It is a great adventure and I am in it!” asserted 33-year-old Captain Harry S. Truman of the 129th Field Artillery Regiment, a unit in the 35th Division of Kansas and Missouri National Guards, writing from France to his longtime fiancé, Bess Wallace, back home.

He later said that he felt as if he were “Galahad after the Grail, and I’ll never forget how my love cried on my shoulder when I told her I was going. That was worth a lifetime on this earth.”

Notes his most recent biographer, David McCullough, “His convictions made him an effective recruiter. He painted the Stafford automobile bright red and went dashing about Kansas City in it wearing his new uniform. He lived in uniform. Nothing even remotely so exciting had ever happened to him before. Every day had focus now.” Thus, for him—as for millions of other young men on either side of the conflict—the Great War, as it was called, became for him the defining moment of his generation.

Indeed, after the war, in Paris, his victorious troops would parade past Gen. John J. Pershing. A generation later, as President of the United States, the former Capt. Harry Truman would attend the funeral of “my old commander” Pershing on July 19, 1948 with sincere regret. One of his proudest moments had been shaking hands with Pershing in Paris as one of his junior officers.

Born on May 8, 1884 at Lamar, Missouri, Harry Truman’s early career was a dismal failure, attempting to make a go of it in a failed farming venture. Looking for a way out, he—like his contemporaries and fellow Midwesterners Dwight Eisenhower and Omar Bradley (figures who would loom large in his later Presidency) applied to the United States Military Academy at West Point, but was turned down due to being blind in his left eye.

On Sept. 28, 1946 he addressed the Corps of Cadets, stating, “In my youth many, many years ago, I had hopes of being a member of this Corps. I didn’t make it. I am sure—morally certain—that if I had made it, I think I would have made a good officer. At least I would have tried. My definition of leadership is that quality which can make other men do what they do not want to do, and like it.”

Actually, HST had served as an officer—and was even a colonel in the Reserves at the very moment he was addressing the Cadets at West Point. His path to The Plain on the Hudson had taken a very circuitous route, however. He enlisted as a private in the Missouri National Guard on June 14, 1905, and was honorably discharged on June 13, 1911.

During the years 1906-17, he had his unsuccessful stint as a farmer. Years later he told interviewer Merle Miller in the book Plain Speaking: An Oral Buiography of Harry S. Truman, that he’d gone from private to sergeant in Battery B: “And when the B Battery went to the border in Texas in 1916, chasing old Pancho Villa, well I couldn’t go because I was harvesting wheat and had a160 acres that had to be cut…” Had he gone, HST might’ve made the earlier acquaintances of two men whom he later got to know as well: George S. Patton, Jr. and Douglas MacArthur.

He was thrilled when President Woodrow Wilson (whom he called “Woodie” after having seen him in Paris) took the US into the war in April 1917, and immediately began organizing Battery F of the 169th Field Artillery, being elected first lieutenant on June 17, 1917. States McCullough in Truman, “Officers in the Guard then still being chosen by the men as in Civil War days. It was one of life’s great moments. He had never been elected anything until now.” Although he could scarcely know it, his political career had just been born.

Then two years older than the Selective Service requirements of the day, Truman didn’t have to go off to war, but he wanted to, so that the experience “would make a man of him.”

As his daughter Margaret later wrote in Harry S. Truman, “He got his education in the Army…If he could lead these wild (Irish) men, he could lead anyone.” The men he commanded in France hated their British “allies.” According to Margaret, “One day Battery D and the rest of the 35th Division assembled for a review by Gen. Pershing and the Prince of Wales—afterwards King Edward VII.

“’As we marched off the field, Gen. Pershing and the Prince of Wales and his staff were crossing a little creek not far from me, “Dad says. ‘…One of my disrespectful corporals or sergeants yelled out, ‘Oh Capitaine. What did the little so and so say about freeing Ireland ?’”

During August 1917 to March 1918, Lt. Truman had served with Battery F (later D) of the 129th Field Artillery at Camp Doniphan, Oklahoma, where he studied artillery and all its terminology—and also learned to swear for the first time as well. His biggest fear was not measuring up as an officer in combat, and he worked overtime learning how to fire his future primary weapon, the French 75mm cannon. His main mentor—Lt. Col. Robert M. Danford—simplified complex mathematics for him and instilled also a primary maxim that worked in the field: “Make the projectile hit the target.”

Passed for officer service in France, HST shipped out from New York on the liner George Washington on March 19, 1918, taking with him six pairs of glasses, all pince-nez. States McCullough, “He was advised that he could not wear the ordinary glasses with the side pieces over the ears in action, because it would interfere with wearing your gas mask…It would leave a hole on either side that you would be able to get gas through.”

The former German luxury liner arrived at Brest harbor in France on Apr.13, 1918 after an anxious Atlantic Ocean crossing in fear of U-boats. Wrote tourist HST to Bess, “I’m for the French more and more. They are the bravest of the brave…They are the most sentimental people I ever saw.”

He avoided the ever-present French prostitutes according to one of his fellow officers: “Personally, I think Harry is one of the cleanest fellows…He was clean all the way through.”

According to his official service record prepared by the Secretary of War on Aug. 14, 1945 (and sent to me by the Harry S. Truman Library in Independence, MO), “He attended a course of instruction at the 2nd Corps School at Montigny-sur-Aube, France, from Apr. 20th-June 10, 1918…” It was there that he trained intensely with the French 75.

McCullough describes it as “A small, rapid-fire, rifled cannon known for its mobility and phenomenal accuracy. It had been developed 20 years before, its technology guarded by the French as a military secret. The slim, six-foot barrel was of nickel steel and other alloys that were kept classified. The breechblock, gun carriage and hydropneumatic recoil system were all of special design . Because the gun recoiled on its carriage, it stayed in place with each shot, and thus no time was lost correcting its aim between shots, which was the secret of its rapid fire. It could get off 20-30 shots a minute and had an effective range of five miles. Being light in weight compared to most cannon, a little over a ton and a half, and maneuverable with its high-spoked wooden wheels, it was considered ideal for trench warfare. The fire from a battery of four was murderous. It was called the marvel weapon. The French would later say it won the war for them. No American or British-made fieldpiece could compare, and American units relied on it almost exclusively…To the Germans, it was the ‘Devil Gun.’”

He passed the five-week course, saw the statue of Joan of Arc in Orleans (a highlight for history buff Truman), and learned with delight from The New York Times that he’d been promoted to the rank of Captain, writing home, “I look like Siam’s King on a drunk when I get that little cockeyed cap stuck over one ear, a riding crop in my left hand, a whipcord suit and a strut that knocks ‘em dead.” These were, incidentally, virtually the same affected airs for which he would later criticize “Mr. Prima Donna, Brass Hat, Five-Star MacArthur” four decades on.

On July 11, 1918 he faced the four guns and 194 men of his new command: Battery D. They were Irishmen and he was a third degree Mason in a Catholic unit. As he met them, he was scared to death—and they knew it. Nevertheless, he looked them up and down, shouted “dismissed” and walked away—as the men gave him a Bronx cheer. That night, they staged a mock stampede of the unit’s horses and a fight broke out in the barracks, landing several men in the infirmary.

The next morning, the unit was greeted with a list of new sergeants from the First Sergeant on down: he had busted them to make a point. “I didn’t come over her to get along with you. You’ve got to get along with me.” According to later Kansas City lawyer Eugene Donnelly, the new CO told the sergeants that if any of them didn’t think they could get along with him to “Speak right up, and I’ll give you a punch in the nose.”

The men, too, decided to tow the line, since he had “dismissed” them, not criticized them in ranks as other officers might have done. Recalled one later, “ I knew that Harry Truman had captured the hearts of those Irishmen in Battery D, and he never lost it…”

He saw to it that the food improved and listened to their gripes as few officers did. He soon became very much respected, wrote and answered letters for them, and earned a reputation as being the type of commander who would get them through the war and safely back home again.

Once, he bedded his exhausted unit down after a forced march and told an irate colonel to court martial him if that was his desire: the welfare of his men came before everything. It was also noticed that he walked at the head of the column with the popular Catholic chaplain rather than ride his own horse.

He was determined to be the best battery commander he could be. “You soldier for me and I’ll soldier for you,” he told the men. He made them “walk the chalk” in what he proudly called “My battery,” adding that “They could pick off a sparrow on a wire at 9,000 yards.”

The menace existed of a German victory as late as June-July 1918, with the war being played out in its concluding phases starting with the Second Battle of the Marne on July 15th. Battery D left for the front by train on Aug. 17th, with boarding accomplished in a record 48 minutes. They were to fight in the rugged terrain of the Vosges Mountains at the extreme eastern end of the Western Front.

His first action was to shell the enemy with 500 rounds of poison gas at 8 AM, Aug. 29, 1918. The Germans retaliated with a counter-barrage in what was later known as “The Battle of Who Run,” since the unit panicked and fled. The CO was rescued by a sergeant who then also ran. Capt. Truman reversed the rout with profanity: “I got up and called them everything I knew” he recalled, but admitted to Bess “I was too scared to run.”

The guns remained stuck in the mud overnight until the men volunteered to extricate them. In September, the Allies prepared for the final big offensive of the war: 15 divisions with 600,000 men; 3,000 artillery pieces, trucks, tanks, and supply wagons and more than 90,000 horses. States McCullough, “From time to time German shells came screaming over. The second night several hit the exact spot where Harry had slept the first morning and would have made small pieces of him as he said, had he not shifted locations.”

Two soldiers on the other side who shared his luck were named Erwin Rommel and Adolf Hitler.

His bombardment began on Sept. 26, 1918, with each battery to fire a thousand rounds an hour at the enemy in a rolling barrage. “In three hours,” notes McCullough, “more ammunition was expended than during the entire Civil War—and at an estimated cost of a million dollars per minute.” Recalled Capt. Truman, “My guns were so hot that they would boil the wet gunnysacks we put on them to keep them cool.”

On the 27th, as he was riding horseback, he lost his glasses when a low-hanging tree branch knocked them off his face. Swiveling about, “Captain Harry” as the men now called him, found them perched neatly on the horse’s rump! By the end of the battle—which HST called “The most terrific experience of my life”---he found that he’d lost 20 pounds. In letters home, he told of the dead, but not of their putrid smell—nor of the ever-present rats.

Of Armistice Day, Nov. 11, 1918, he wrote, “My last shot was fired at 10:45” PM. Two weeks and two days later, he took a 24-hour tour of Paris, then went to Nice and Monte Carlo on the Mediterranean, where he marveled at the palm trees, saw an opera, and witnessed a “real-life princess drinking beer.”

While worrying about the effects of the Spanish Flu back in the US (where there were 500,000 deaths, of whom 25,000 were soldiers), he began thinking of a future run for judge in Jackson County, and perhaps even for Congress.

“After what he had seen of peacetime Army life, he said, he would give anything to be on the House Military Affairs Committee. Like a great many of his fellow reserve officers, he acquired a decided bias against West Pointers. He thought most of them pompous, lazy and overrated, and couldn’t imagine himself living under such a system,” according to McCullough.

“’I can’t see what on earth any man with initiative and a mind of his own wants to be in the Army in peacetimes for,’ he wrote. ‘You’ve always got some fossil above you whose slightest whim is law and who generally hasn’t a grain of horse sense.’ As a boy he told Bess, he had ‘thirsted for a West Point education…only so you could be the leading lady of the palace or empire or whatever it was I wanted to build.’”

Now, in Paris, he bought her a wedding ring instead, and sailed for home on the former German liner Zeppelin on Apr. 9, 1919 with the 52 other officers and 2,174 men of the 129th Field Artillery. He was seasick the entire voyage home, but on May 3, 1919 rode at the head of his troops on parade into Kansas City. He married Bess the following June 28th.

“Captain Harry” was promoted major in 1920, named lieutenant colonel in 1925, posted as full colonel in 1932, and placed on the retired list on Jan. 31, 1953 after having left office as President, a military career from private to Commander-in-Chief.

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* Presidents at War: Truman


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